Returning to El Remate

by Nancy Gibson

I have been returning to El Remate almost every year since 1998. The people are kind and warm, and it was the first village I’d been to in Latin America that was passionate about education — both for girls and boys.

Our first trip in 1998 was supposed to last only five days. We were staying at a small hotel, and, upon returning to the hotel after a day trip, we learned that the infant grandson of our hosts had been tragically killed in an auto accident. The accident also sent their daughter-in-law to a hospital in Guatemala City via life flight. They were expecting a large American tour group the next day and could not face hosting tourists. They asked us if we would step in for them as hosts with the tour group, considering our knowledge of the Ancient Maya (no pressure!). We stayed two weeks instead of the five days we had planned on. By the time we left, we were bonded to them, their staff and to the entire community.

I have watched the village grow and people come and go. I have also watched the tourists. The village is reliant on tourism for hard currency and job opportunities. In 2009, I attended the American Anthropology Associations annual conference in Philadelphia. One anthropologist presented a paper titled: “Without tourists this village does not eat.”  His premise — that an over-reliance on wage labor has eroded knowledge of traditional food gardens and farming — resonated with me.

I have been observing the positive and negative effects of “eco-tourism” and tourism in general on the individuals, families and the community of El Remate ever since.

•     •     •     •

In 1998, two years had passed since the end of “La Violencia,” the 36-year civil conflict between the Guatemalan military and the People’s Army. My husband and I had spent over ten years studying the Ancient Maya and their urban centers that supported large populations through innovative and intense agriculture. Guatemala is known as the center of the Ancient Mayan culture, as the tourism promotions say, “The Heart of Mundo Maya.” The end of La Violencia meant that the country was safe and ready for tourism. A spirit of hope for a better future was everywhere.

In 1999, the milagro de luz (miracle of electricity) arrived and was quickly followed by cable TV.  By 2000, cell phones arrived and are now so common that it is not unusual to see traditional Maya women carrying water and talking on a smartphone at the same time. Game Boys, Xboxes and iPads are now equally common.

During this same period of time, a lack of land in the fertile highlands for subsistence agriculture caused a migration of other Mayan language groups to find land and homes in the Petén, resulting in an environmental strain on the rainforest. These other groups are not native to Petén, and they do not know the traditional rainforest methods of jungle gardening and milpa (maize and beans) agriculture of the native Itza Maya. Consequently, large swaths of rainforest have been deforested, leaving the fragile soil unprotected and removing precious habitat for nutritious forest plants and many endangered jungle animals.

The village grew with many small hostels, motels and hotels along the lake, with an equal number of tourist shops selling handcrafted wood objects, replica Mayan ceramics and colorful Mayan textiles. Many locals abandoned subsistence farming and sold their milpas as they took jobs in tourism.

The village appeared to be prospering, and then the world stood still when 9/11 occurred. Few tourists traveled to Petén. A tourism boom-and-bust cycle has occurred several times now with the latest being December 2012, the end of the 5,000 year Mayan calendar cycle.  When the global (and in particular US and European) economies flourish, so does tourism; when there is a recession, tourism is almost nonexistent. This has resulted in many closures, sales and re-sales of small hotels as the owners leave Petén to hopefully find work in Guatemala City.

The promise of tourism to boost the economic standard of living has not occurred. Tourists want everything at the lowest price possible — so low that making a living is difficult, especially when the village is reliant on tourism.

•     •     •     •

In 2004, we met and became friends with Danny Diaz when he found his way back to Guatemala after having fled during La Violencia. He came to Petén and fell in love, as we had years before, with El Remate. He purchased a 65-acre piece of land to save it from being completely logged and turned into cattle pasture. He named it Harmony Station, and he has made it his mission to relearn and pass on traditional knowledge of jungle gardening, milpa agriculture and rainforest conservation from a few of the remaining elders of the Itza Maya.

Over the years, Danny has fostered positive relationships with the people of the village, explaining that he is responsible for the land and he needs their help in exchange for allowing them access to the fishing lake on his land. Slowly they have gained respect for Danny, and they no longer hunt for animals or cut trees for firewood on his land. He also employs four people from the village to assist him with the jungle gardening, nut gathering, tilapia aquaculture (to replace hunting) and reforestation planting.

•     •     •     •

On a Sunday in October of 2013, we were due out to Harmony Station to enjoy the farm’s first harvest of organically-grown maize and an afternoon of rest. We enjoyed a leisurely walk over to Laguna Sal Petén and Harmony Station. We were greeted by one of the local women in the village with an embracing hug. Danny had her arrive that morning to make tortillas and empanadas for our ceremonial first feast.

Danny created a vegetarian India/Mayan fusion rice dish with the highly nutritious native jungle plants of Chaya and Chipilín that are high in protein and native jungle spices. We harvested coconuts for their cool and refreshing water to drink and then enjoyed their sweet milky white meat.  Devouring our meal with empanadas and fresh tortillas, we thanked the forest and Itza Maya elders as we listened to the wondrous sounds of reclaimed rainforest – no tourists required today.

 Nancy Gibson received her MA in Interdisciplinary Studies from Marylhurst University. She writes about interdisciplinary connections and human disconnects on her blog An Interdisciplinary Lens, with a focus on localism, consumerism and organic systems.